Sardines Taste Drastically Different When They're Not Canned

If you're even peripherally clued into the food scene, then you know that tinned fish is having a moment. "Tinned fish" has been trending on TikTok, accruing tens of millions of views, and canned seafood sales in the U.S. have been on the rise. It might seem a little odd to think of sardines as a hip food popular with the young crowd. But, what about the fresh stuff? Both versions of sardines are solid options for discerning home cooks on a budget, but the taste is hugely different.

In theory, tinning is a thrifty way to preserve fish at its peak point. But, in execution, the quality of the fish does slightly deteriorate during its prolonged submersion in the canning liquid. As a result, fresh sardines have a sweeter, milder taste than the canned variety. For the same reason, fresh sardines are texturally firmer than canned sardines, which are typically higher in sodium.

Fresh sardines are also generally a higher quality fish, as they're often caught locally and prepared by small-scale fishmongers. But, these factors don't necessarily mean that fresh is the universally preferable option from a culinary standpoint.

Know your fishes and match them to your dishes

Canned sardines can be packed in different flavorful liquids like tomato sauce, olive oil, or brine, and often come smoked or salted. This built-in flavor makes canned sardines a one-stop-shop ingredient for adding protein and a big impact to a dish. Canned sardines can also come skinless, which greatly changes the fish's flavor.

For inexperienced foodies, canned sardines have been known to make seafood accessible. The fish comes ready to eat — no knowledge of handling or preparing fish is necessary. Conversely, when working with fresh sardines, foodies will have to do their research to clean and cook them safely, which additionally comes with a longer prep time per dish. Further, canned sardines can be more sustainable, as they include smaller fish that might not make the cut in fresh sardine displays.

Wild-caught fish famously totes a stronger, "fishier" flavor, while farmed fish has a softer texture and buttery taste. If you prefer the more pungent flavor in your recipes, fresh sardines might be the way to go. Still, different manufacturers make canned sardines from both farmed and wild-caught fish (it'll say which on the can).